It poses a challenge, though, for Angela Merkel, whose status as chancellor remains unchallenged, but who is now obliged to forge a new coalition.
For the first time in many a decade, the far right will have a vocal presence in Germany’s Parliament, after Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) exceeded expectations in last Sunday’s elections by winning almost 13 per cent of the popular vote, which entitles it to 88 seats in the Bundestag.
The centrist parties — Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) alongside their Bavarian sister party, the somewhat more conservative CSU, as well as the Social Democrats (SPD) — mustered their lowest shares of the vote since the 1940s. Jointly, their parliamentary representation is more than enough to carry on governing the country as a “grand coalition”, but the SPD has opted out of maintaining the trend.
Its primary motivation may be self-centred, insofar as it hopes greater “product differentiation” could improve the party’s chances of reviving its fortunes, but the move will have the decidedly positive side-effect of denying the AfD the right to claim the mantle of the largest opposition party.
It poses a challenge, though, for Angela Merkel, whose status as chancellor remains unchallenged, but who is now obliged to forge a new coalition. With 33 per cent of the vote, the CDU/CSU alliance will need to co-opt two of the smaller parties in order to obtain a working majority. The only feasible option in this respect is a “Jamaican coalition”, wedding the CDU/CSU’s black insignia to the yellow of the classically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which returns to the Bundestag after dropping below the five per cent threshold in 2013, and the natural colour of the Greens.
Although Germany’s Greens tend to be rather less left-wing than their counterparts in many other countries, they don’t see eye to eye with the FDP on key environmental/energy issues, while at the same time the FDP’s enthusiasm about the European Union’s direction is decidedly muted, and Merkel has suggested that producing a workable compromise could take until Christmas.
With three terms at the helm behind her, Merkel is the only chancellor many young Germans are familiar with, and she will inevitably strive to ensure that her fourth — and in all likelihood final — term does not add up as a lesson in the abject consequences of outstaying one’s welcome. She has suggested that she will try to convince the SPD to change its mind. The third alternative is a CDU/CSU minority government that counts on parliamentary backing from other centrists, which would hold out the prospect of frequent negotiations and potential instability over the next four years.
The German result is broadly in keeping with European trends, the key difference being that in this particular country the resurgence of the extreme right was long deemed particularly unthinkable in the light of the Nazi transformation it underwent in the 1930s, and its well-documented consequences. Compared to most other nations with heaps of skeletons in their closets, Germany has been refreshingly upfront about facing up to its inglorious past.
Yet the level of electoral backing for the AfD points to inadequacies in the process. Sure, the eight per cent surge in the extremist party’s vote since the last election can largely be attributed to angst at certain levels of German society over the Merkel administration’s generosity in accommodating more than a million refugees, mostly from Middle Eastern conflict zones.
The far right’s arguments, though, invariably tend to be framed in terms of ethnicity and religious identity, wherein it is not hard to discern clear echoes of Nazi tendencies. Back then the targets were predominantly Jewish; today the demonisation is directed mainly at Muslims — a minuscule proportion of whom seem forever keen to enhance the narrative with terrorist or criminal actions.
On the face of it, it seems surprising that much of the AfD’s support came from the regions that less than 30 years ago constituted East Germany. That’s partly because those parts of the country feel somewhat left out of Germany’s reputation as a European economic powerhouse. It may also, at some level, have to do with being more accustomed to authoritarianism.
At the same time, pretty much across the once Soviet-dominated parts of Europe, some of those who bristled against communist party dictatorship were willing to contemplate all manner of alternatives, including variants of fascism. In that respect, the fondness for the far right in countries such as Hungary and Poland, not to mention Russia itself, qualifies as a searing critique of the Soviet model.
But the revival of right-wing extremism in the historically capitalist parts of Europe as well as the United States is also a reaction to the inevitable consequences of neoliberalism. It is, meanwhile, mildly heartening to note that on the day of its triumph the AfD’s most prominent office-holder, the “moderately” far-right chairperson Frauke Petry, walked out of the party.
Merkel has expressed her determination to win back AfD voters. How she goes about that task will largely determine her legacy.
By arrangement with Dawn